If I asked you to identify the most important industrial operations in the region, Boeing would come easily, plus Vigor’s 27-acre facility on Seattle’s Harbor Island (what remains of the famed Todd Shipyards here). Nucor fabricates steel near the Port of Seattle.

But one of the most consequential is the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, at Naval Base Kitsap in Bremerton. Located on 179 acres, it is the largest naval shipyard in the country (Kitsap is the third-largest naval base after Norfolk, Virginia, and San Diego).

Officially called the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility, the operation employs more than 13,500. According to the Navy, the shipyard has six dry docks, performing maintenance on fast-attack, ballistic-missile and guided-missile nuclear submarines, as well as nuclear aircraft carriers. It contains the only dry dock on the West Coast capable of handling an aircraft carrier.

Another important mission: Defueling and inactivating nuclear-powered ships. The reactor core is taken by barge to the Hanford nuclear reservation, where it is buried. Also, the shipyard is home to a mothball fleet — many ships on the way to scrapping — which fluctuates in size. A fresh assignment is maintenance of the new Gerald R. Ford-class supercarriers that will replace the Nimitz class.

The shipyard boasts a rich history with five historic districts including Officers’ Row.

But along with Pearl Harbor, it is the tip of the (maintenance) spear in today’s so-called great power competition with China. Beijing already boasts a larger fleet than the United States (in numbers but not tonnage) and is building up fast.


The Pentagon’s latest report on China’s military capabilities made note of Beijing’s shipbuilding prowess. China, it stated, “is the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage and has the capability to produce naval gas turbine and diesel engines as well as shipboard weapons and electronic systems, which makes it nearly self-sufficient for all shipbuilding needs.”

This comes at a time when America’s naval shipyards are on the verge of trouble.

At one time, the United States boasted at least 11 major naval shipyards, including massive ones in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Long Beach, California. Over time this has fallen to four: Norfolk; Pearl Harbor; Portsmouth, Maine; and Puget Sound. The latter is the only one on the West Coast. (Four private firms own seven others of various capabilities but none as strong as the naval counterparts).

David Axe wrote on The National Interest website, “The U.S. naval industrial base is in bad shape. There are too few shipyards and they work too slowly to quickly expand the fleet. In wartime, they would struggle to repair battle-damaged ships.”

This could prove critical, even fatal, in a long war with China.

According to a 2018 report from the National Defense Strategy Commission, “Against an enemy equipped with advanced anti-access/area-denial capabilities, attrition of U.S. capital assets — ships, planes, tanks — could be enormous.”


Puget Sound Naval Shipyard was established in 1891. In World War I, it built seven submarines, 25 sub chasers, seven oceangoing tugs, two minesweepers and two ammunition ships, along with 1,700 small boats.

On the eve of World War II, among its important jobs was overhauling the battleship USS Arizona from October 1940 to January 1941. The “superdreadnaught” then sailed for Pearl Harbor, only to meet a fate that cost the lives of 1,177 officers, sailors and Marines during the surprise Japanese attack 80 years ago this Tuesday.

During World War II, the shipyard was an important location repairing battle damage to ships and returning them to service in the Pacific as the United States built the strongest navy in history. The U.S. fleet included 827 surface warships and 230 submarines at the end of 1944.

In 2020, the Navy operated 114 surface warships and 54 submarines, following a steady drawdown since the end of the Cold War. The force is stretched thin and has seen high-profile mishaps, such as the 2017 collision involving the destroyer USS John S. McCain.

Basic seamanship and damage control have been called into question, especially with the 2020 fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard in San Diego. The fire, attributed to arson, left the $1.2 billion amphibious assault ship a total loss.

The USS Connecticut, one of only three highly advanced Seawolf subs, recently collided with an underwater seamount in the South China Sea. Damage to the $3 billion boat, based at Kitsap, was extensive. After basic repairs at Guam, the sub will likely end up at Puget Sound Naval Yard for an overhaul.


(The USS Jimmy Carter, the third and final Seawolf class, is also based at Kitsap and outfitted for highly classified missions. The future president, when he was a naval officer, “qualified” in submarines, which requires an arduous mastering of every task aboard the boat).

The Navy is now embarking on a Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program. The 20-year, $21 billion effort seeks to modernize infrastructure at the four naval shipyards. This includes dry dock repairs, restoring facilities and replacing old and deteriorating capital equipment.

For example, in September a $21 million contract was awarded “for seismic repairs and life safety improvements to building 431” at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.

It’s a beginning. But the most important industrial operation here you may not have heard of faces a challenging voyage to meet the needs of the future.